Dear Rhode Island: That April Fools Day Blended Learning Conference is no joke!


Competency-based education’s march through New England continues. In the fall it was Massachusetts with its fanfare around MAPLE (Massachusetts Personalized Learning Ed-Tech Consortium), and now on April Fools Day the joke appears to be on Rhode Island. This weekend hundreds of educators gathered in Providence for the sixth annual “Blended and Personalized Learning Conference” hosted by the Highlander Institute, the Christensen Institute, and the Learning Accelerator. Event sponsors included the Gates Foundation, Carnegie Corporation, Nellie Mae Foundation, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, and the Overdeck Family Foundation.

The intent of this post is to describe the players and follow the money behind the shift to digital education in Rhode Island. If you’re new to the blog and not yet familiar with concerns about this shift please refer to this recent talk (it’s an hour, but I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback) or posts on learning ecosystems and “Future Ready” schools. Short on time? My 4-minute overview of the end game cuts to the chase.

The Highlander Institute based in Providence, RI began in 1990 as Children of Promise to serve students with diagnosed learning differences. In 2005 a partnership was established with the Highlander Charter School, and in recent years the organization has been become an incubator and cheerleader for ed-tech and blended learning in the state. A query of Gates Foundation grants shows that the Institute has received nearly $2.5 million in support of these efforts since 2015, including a recent grant of $1.7 million. EdTechRI, run by the Institute, is part of a national network of test beds funded by Gates that pairs ed-tech entrepreneurs with teachers and classrooms. Their FUSE RI program has trained 59 teacher fellows since 2014. These educators and administrators are coached in blended learning “best practices” (data, data, data) and sent out to assess readiness and implement these blended learning programs in LEAs throughout the state, 29 and counting. FUSE fellows have access to “flex funds” to supplement their learning and subsidize program development.

Woonsocket provides a useful case study in how Highlander’s programs influence school districts, guiding them to adopt policies friendly to ed-tech implementation. In 2014 Heather Neil, an elementary technology integration specialist, participated in the first FUSE RI fellows cohort. As part of the program she designed district-wide professional development for teachers, implemented district PLC around blended learning and supported the superintendent in becoming “more tech savvy.” Her profile page notes she “is an active member of EdUnderground, a PLC of education technology pioneers and early adopters from across Rhode Island.” Following her participation, the district entered into a two-year partnership with Highlander, piloting blended learning in select classrooms throughout the district and had one 8th-grade cohort using Summit Basecamp, a program developed by Summit Charter Schools. The Institute then recognized the Woonsocket Education Department with their 2016 FUSE RI Blended Learning District Leadership Award. By the way there is a regional Summit Learning Convening in Warwick, RI on April 24-25.

It will be interesting to see if Woonsocket applies for a RI Lighthouse School challenge grant. The Office of Innovation is administering grants designed to push mastery-based (aka competency or proficiency-based) education. It’s modeled after Dallas Dance’s Lighthouse School program in Baltimore County. Also known as STAT, the 1:1 device initiative is a darling of the digital learning community, but has come under fire by school board members and parents for the incredible expense and poor quality of education delivered. Regular financial support has flowed to the Highlander Institute from the Nellie Mae Educational Foundation since 2015. Don’t know who they are? Read about them here. A few small grants underwrote conferences like the one that happened in Providence over the weekend. There was a $280,000 one supporting the FUSE RI program, and a few in the $100,000 range for multi-stakeholder outreach efforts in support of personalized learning. However in December of 2016 a much larger, $1.2 million dollar grant was made to “leverage diverse stakeholders to create aspirational student-centered learning designs that have the potential to truly impact both marginalized, underserved students and the state education “system” as a whole.” I hope folks in Rhode Island are paying attention; that’s a lot of money.

Highlander Institute
Click here for an interactive relationship map.

The other two event sponsors are from out of state. The Learning Accelerator from Menlo Park, CA got its start in 2012 with $750,000, also from Gates. According to the description provided on their 990 tax filing from 2012, its purpose is to remove structural impediments to the widespread implementation of blended learning by funding scalable solutions, providing professional development for teachers, consulting with districts on technology purchasing and finance, and securing broadband capacity where needed. The Learning Accelerator serves as a pass through, handing out smaller grants to organizations that support its mission via research and product development as well as to charter management organizations and alternative teacher training programs that have been set up to carry out this data-driven dashboard form of “education.”

Learning Acclerator Blog

Click here for an interactive relationship map.

Clayton Christensen, a Harvard Business School professor known for disruptive innovation, founded the Christensen Institute and its sister organization Innosight, a strategy and consulting firm based in Lexington, MA and run by Michael Horn. The latter also receives Gates funding. The disruptive focus was initially the healthcare and education sectors, but now appears to encompass all social finance opportunities. In an incredibly informative blog post, Gisele Huff, founding board member of Innosight and iNACOL lifetime achievement award winner, shared that she had an epiphany working with Clayton Christensen in 2005 that led her to focus the assets of the Jaquelin Hume foundation to reform education through the use of technology. After initial investments in CMOs like Rocketship Academy and Carpe Diem, she and other reformers ended up making connections in Rhode Island that led them to change their strategy. Now they anticipate “reforming” districts internally through online “personalized learning” programs. For more information see my prior post on blended learning, and how it’s being used to charterize public schools from within.

“In February 2012, Michael Horn and Anthony Kim working with the Rhode Island Department of Education invited a total of 300 district superintendents and teachers to a day-long meeting to introduce them to the concept of blended learning and to the enormous potential of integrating technology into the curriculum to help students learn and teachers teach. This event was pivotal for the Foundation’s strategic plan because it demonstrated that it was possible to partner with traditional public school districts and it led us to make similar seed investments in Washington, D.C. and Oakland, CA.” (excerpted from Huff’s blog post above)

Christensen Institute

Click here for an interactive relationship map.

Big developments have been underway in the Ocean State laying the groundwork for widespread adoption of so-called “personalized learning” practices that are not personal at all, but rather isolating and dehumanizing. See this excellent recent post from Audrey Watters’ Hacked Education. Senate Bill 0103 is queued up for a vote next week and if passed would open the doors to competency/proficiency based education statewide. Ed-tech interests appear intent on making Rhode Island a proof point that that will green light the industry to scale tech-centric, lean, value models of automated education nationally. With friendly ear in the governor’s mansion (First Gentleman, Andy Moffit, is a Teach for America alum, co-founder of McKinsey’s Global Education practice, and Stand for Children board member), and Richard Culatta (former director of the US Department of Education’s Department of Technology under Arne Duncan) heading the state’s Office of Innovation, Rhode Island makes an easy target.

Last September the Rhode Island Office of Innovation and RIDE drafted a whitepaper and publicly launched a statewide personalized learning initiative. They took their show on the road over the next six months, soliciting additional input, and released a final version of the whitepaper this February. The report tries to downplay the role of technology in personalized learning, but two-thirds of the images included feature students with devices, including several of young children with headphones using adaptive learning management systems. In this brave new world of “non-factory” style education, the job of teachers is reduced to selecting educational resources for individual student “playlists” based on the data they generate, largely through devices.


Such a playlist is featured in this tweet, shared by a teacher who participated in a tour of local schools on the first day of the blended learning conference.

Playlist Tweet

Education is being reduced to watching videos from the Discovery channel and taking notes. But, hey everyone has their own “personalized” pathway that allows them go as quickly or slowly as they like. Open Education Resources or OER’s are a key element in this personalized playlist approach to education. Arne Duncan launched a national #GoOpen initiative in the fall of 2015, partnering with educational technology companies and non-profits looking to promote the use of online resources and digital devices in our nation’s classrooms. Culatta headed the Educational Technology department at the time. Shortly thereafter he left DC, returned to his home state of Rhode Island, and signed Rhode Island on to the #GoOpen program.

In addition to promoting the statewide personalized learning initiative, Eduvate Rhode Island (a public private partnership) received an “Industry Cluster Grant” from the Commerce Department in 2016 to prepare a study examining potential expansion of the Ed Tech sector. Looking to Massachusetts as a model, they intend to leverage their status as one of Digital Promise’s EdClusters and “the nation’s first personalized learning lab state” to attract and promote educational technology business growth in the state. Page seven of the report outlines the role the Highlander Institute is expected to play: “The Highlander Institute and EduvateRI can provide edtech companies with access to schools and engagement with educators and administrators in a way that few other edtech clusters can boast.” I wonder if anyone has told the teachers?

One of the report’s major recommendations was to create a physical hub, and it appears they may have found a partner in Rocky Hill School in East Greenwich, RI. In early February LearnLaunch, the group running MAPLE (Massachusetts Personalized Learning Ed Tech Consortium) announced the creation of the nation’s first edtech accelerator to be housed on a K12 campus. This co-working space / test bed is set to open in the fall of 2017. The idea is that ed-tech concepts will be developed and tested in cooperation with the students and staff of the private school that serves students in pre-K to 12th grade. It seems the payoff for the children being guinea pigs in this program is that they will receive enrichment activities geared towards “innovation, design thinking, and entrepreneurism.”

In states like Rhode Island, growing educational technology markets is taking precedence over the health and well being of children. The future of teaching as an inherently human and relationship-driven enterprise is at great risk. Corporate and neoliberal philanthropic interests picture schools as data factories and profit centers, showing callous disregard for those held hostage by screens, dashboards, and playlists, however personalized. Things are ramping up in Rhode Island, with reformers looking on eagerly as evidenced by a recent article on the state’s personalized learning initiative put out by Campbell Brown’s media outlet 74Million.

This rollout follows a pattern established first in Alaska, then Maine, and Massachusetts. Find one or two regional non-profits, donate funds, and use them as a front to carry out your grand digital transformation. Sell the public on “innovative” technology, adhere to your communications plan, deflect parent and teacher concerns, secure whatever research is required to support your program, and push bonds and levies so that by the time everyone realizes the whole thing is a sham, it will be very difficult to back out. Now that we know their game plan, we need to start making plans of our own. In Tennessee forward-thinking parents have already filed a lawsuit demanding a student’s right to have a human teacher rather than a computer. Sounds like a great idea! Get creative, organize in your communities, identify your wrenches and start sticking them in those gears. If we don’t act soon they’ll be plugging in our children and profiting from their misery.

PJSTA Live- Episode 3- Ed Reform 2.0

It’s great to have another opportunity to discuss where things are headed with this next wave of privatization. Thanks so much to Brian St. Pierre and the Port Jefferson Station Teachers Association for the invitation to participate in tonight’s discussion.

The official website of the PJSTA

Our third episode of PJSTA Live deals with Ed Reform 2.0.  We were joined by two guests, Alison McDowell and Jia Lee.  McDowell, a parent and a public education activist, blogs at Wrench in the Gears where she takes a skeptical look at digital curriculum in public schools.  Additionally she has been involved in United Opt Out and has presented her findings regarding digital curriculum at various locations across the country.  Lee is well known in public education and teacher union circles.  She has been a conscientious objector for several years, ran against Michael Mulgrew for UFT President last year, and has been a dedicated member of the Movement of Rank and file Educators.  She has worked tirelessly to organize teachers in the fight against school privatization.

You can access McDowell’s blog post “Digital Curriculum: Questions Parents Should Be Asking” here.

You can access the slideshow used by McDowell by clicking…

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We change the world by showing up. I went to Seattle and got a video on Ed Reform 2.0 / Learning Ecosystems to share!


This weekend I relished the opportunity to meet up with some wonderful activists with whom I have been collaborating online for many months. Virtual worlds provide useful starting points for building networks and sharing information, but nothing beats being able to be in the same physical space, shake hands, share a hug, and discuss the future of education looking directly into each other’s eyes.

There are days when I wonder how I ended up where I am, where this is all headed, and who am I to be pushing the conversation forward? But I continue to believe that our voices matter, our questions matter, and public discussion matters. The future our children and grandchildren inherit hinges on our willingness RIGHT NOW to challenge educational surveillance and profiling being enabled by so-called “personalized” online adaptive learning systems and a “playlist” approach to education that is aligned to workforce skills and social-emotional competencies. I am heartened to hear of the legal challenge in Tennessee regarding a student’s right to have a human teacher rather than a computer. I was grateful to have a full room of everyday people, people like you, show up to the Lake City Library on a Saturday morning to hear what I had to say, and I hope you will help carry the message into your community.

While in Seattle we spent an afternoon visiting ed-reform landmarks, including the visitor center of the Gates Foundation. There wasn’t a gift shop, but I did get the best possible souvenir of my trip, a professionally done video prepared by Mike McCormick. Thank you Mike! I hope you will consider watching it, sharing it and starting these important conversations where you live. You might find this post on digital curriculum a useful starting point.

Link to the slides used in the presentation.

Opt Out 2.0: Adding Tech Concerns to the Conversation

Earlier today I posted the following comment on Diane Ravitch’s March 12 post “Send a Message to Betsy DeVos: Opt Out of Federally Mandated Testing.”

I second Former Teacher’s comments regarding the damage interim assessments are doing to the educational process. Opt Out can no longer simply be focused on end of year testing. It MUST expand to address student data-mining that takes place throughout the school year via interim assessments as well as use of adaptive learning management systems that “learn” our children. These programs disempower both students AND teachers, putting the educational process in the hands of AI algorithms.

Resist data collection at all levels, including (especially) surveys and games that gather non-academic, social-emotional competencies. End of year opt out is a valuable access point for parents, but it is up to teachers and long-term activists to begin to expand the conversation. The time to do this is now! The Learning Accelerator and Education elements just released an updated communications plan with step-by-step instructions on how to sell “personalized” (digital) learning to community members.

We must not waste this opportunity to begin introducing the dangers of blended learning into the opt out conversation.

I shared it a few places online and received feedback that it is becoming increasingly difficult to opt out of the many online curriculum and 1:1 programs being imposed. My response was that while it may not be realistic to opt out without leaving public education entirely (which is not something I advocate), we must resist. We need to begin to have conversations about the role of technology in our schools, and we need to do it sooner rather than later. Each person who shares this concern should be actively seeking out opportunities to spark conversations about technology, educational surveillance, and what it means to prioritize devices and data over human interaction. To that end, I am heading out in a few hours to share the testimony below with the Philadelphia School Reform Commission. We don’t have an elected school board, being under state control, so I don’t anticipate they are likely to change course based on this testimony. But the meetings are streamed, and I hope to reach parents and teachers in the audience. If I can turn on a few lightbulbs, it will have been worth a walk in the cold to get there and a few hours of my evening. I hope you will consider adding your voice where you live.

The image below is from the table of contents for the US Army Research Lab’s 2014 report “Design Recommendations for Intelligent Tutoring Systems, Volume 2.” MATHia, developed by Carnegie Learning, is featured in Chapter 6. Carnegie Learning is the topic of my SRC testimony, which follows:

Intelligent Tutoring

Philadelphia School Reform Commission: March 16, 2017

I’m here today as a parent to speak against SRC Resolution B-6 that would increase the contract with Carnegie Learning by $3 million and extend it through June 2018.

Carnegie Learning develops and sells adaptive software that employs artificial intelligence and cognitive science to “teach” children math. Algorithms in products like Cognitive Tutor and MATHia “learn” our children through intrusive data mining. Carnegie Learning also sells professional development and analytics services that reinforce use of data-driven products. I strongly oppose the SRC’s decision to purchase services from a company that maintains a vested financial interest in “personalized” e-learning solutions that marginalize human teachers and limit student access to face-to-face instruction.

Carnegie Learning developed their products with financial support from the US Department of Defense. In 2013, Carnegie Learning was awarded $1.4 million by the Advanced Distributed Learning initiative (a DoD program) to develop “hyper-personalized intelligent tutors.” Their “MATHia” program was profiled in Chapter 6 of the US Army Research Lab’s 2014 publication “Design Recommendations for Intelligent Tutoring Systems, Volume 2.” The MATHia chapter focused on “personalized” content. Other chapters reveal a troubling trend in e-learning, namely software developers’ desire and capacity to monitor and manipulate the emotions and behavior of program users: “Addressing Behavioral Disengagement with Online Learning,” “Strategies and Tactics to Manage Learner Affect, Engagement, and Grit,” and “Adaptive Interventions to Address Students’ Negative Emotions During Learning Activities.”

Philadelphia’s children must not be plugged into algorithmic educational surveillance systems. They are not meant to be cogs in a data-generating machine. They should not be subject to software systems that have been designed to manipulate them. We must respect the basic right of all humans to learn, in person, in relationship to one another with a human teacher being central to that process. Students deserve an education where they are free to think and explore independently, without fear of being profiled and commodified by the data they generate.

As a parent, it is my duty to speak out against the transition to blended learning that is taking place. In a recent report “Making Blended Work,” Cheryl Logan, Philadelphia’s Chief Academic Support Officer, was among the contributors listed. This industry-funded publication was produced to hasten adoption of online learning by promoting so-called “best practices.” Featured was Cabarrus County School District’s decision to double the number of students taught by the “best” teachers, reducing face-to-face instruction by half. What are students doing when they aren’t with a teacher? Why yes, they’re online.

Last year the School District of Philadelphia “saved” nearly $65 million by failing to adequately staff and provide substitute services to our schools. Our teachers are nearing 1,300 days without a contract. At the same time, blended learning grants were awarded, dropping thousands of chrome books into our schools. If we don’t fight back now, austerity will push us into a world where automated teaching becomes the norm rather than the exception. In 1951, Isaac Asimov wrote a short story titled “The Fun They Had” where there were no real books or schools, and teachers were machines. No surprise; the result was very unhappy children. There’s still time to change course. Invest in people, not devices. And save the $3 million you’d planned to spend on Carnegie Learning’s contract extension. I trust our teachers can find ways to spend those funds that would be far more beneficial to our children.

What You Should Know About “Pay for Success” as Testing Season Approaches

From this week’s newsfeed:

  • Chicago schools may end classes three weeks early due to lack of funding.
  • Several dozen Detroit schools close temporarily due to a “boil water” advisory.
  • Some Boston schools anticipate 20%+ cuts to already meager budgets.
  • Philadelphia teachers crowd-fund a billboard explaining they’ve been working without a contract or raises for nearly five years.

Against this backdrop we enter another high-stakes testing season where teachers and students are expected to relinquish their classrooms to the demands of big data, praying they score high enough to avoid the turnaround list. Each year this becomes more difficult as schools are deprived of even the most-basic levels of public support. Test scores are used to punitively grade schools and rate teachers even as the most important human aspects of education, the ones that cannot be uploaded to data dashboards, are carelessly dismissed. It makes no sense until you realize that data, rigorous assessment and ranking systems are demanded to accomplish the true goal of transforming public education into a vast market for private investment. Tim Scott offers a detailed analysis in his piece “Social Impact Bonds: The Titans of Finance as the Altruistic Merchants of Schooling and the Common Good.”

Pay for Success (PFS) is an investment model where public institutions seek infusions of private capital to finance programs that would otherwise remain unfunded. Returns are paid if programs demonstrate they’ve met predetermined metrics for “success” as outlined in the Social Impact Bond (SIB) deal. Deal brokers determine the metrics without input from the people accessing the programs. Those who have the money define what “success” looks like.

Provisions for Pay for Success were written into the new Every Student Succeeds Act, and last October the first two deals were issued by the US Department of Education. One, promoting workforce development, is being run through Social Finance and Jobs for the Future. The other was awarded to American Institutes for Research (AIR) to investigate pilot programs for English language learners. While the number of Pay for Success deals in education is currently small, the article “Paying for Success in Education: Comparing Opportunities in the US and Globally” prepared by the Brookings Institution in June 2016 indicates there’s likely to be a big market for SIBs moving forward if these early deals pass muster.

Pay for Success (PFS) originated in the UK around 2010. New Profit and their policy arm America Forward were instrumental in bringing the idea to the US, successfully lobbying to have PFS provisions incorporated into WIOA in 2014 and ESSA in 2015. Way back in 2007, George Overholser, founder of Boston-based Third Sector Capital Partners, addressed attendees at America Forward’s annual “Gathering of Leaders” and pitched the concept of investing private capital in public programs that were determined to be both scalable and rigorous in measuring outcomes. He felt the timing for such programs was right due to the growth of nonprofit capital markets and improving technological capabilities.

“Information technology, with its amazing ability to coordinate minute-to-minute activities, is gradually transforming the way social purpose organizations are able to operate. For the first time, without going seriously broke, they are able to monitor quality in real-time, across hundreds of locations, and to track and control expenses as well.”

Given that quote, consider how digital education and embedded online assessments might function within a PFS framework. Technology-based education, heavily promoted during the Obama administration through initiatives like Future Ready Schools, ConnectEd and Digital Promise, seems like a perfect fit. SIB returns rely on data that can be readily processed by third party evaluators like SRI International, MDRC, and the Urban Institute. What better way to gather vast quantities than pushing students onto online learning management systems? Despite recent talk of “innovative assessments” it is clear that evaluators will not be sifting through portfolios of authentic student work to determine whether or not Goldman Sachs or Pritzker get their payout. The pressure for data-driven instruction will only mount if SIBs become a regular part of the education funding mix.

Thus far education SIBs in the US have focused on early childhood interventions and workforce development, both identified in a 2011 article written by staff of Third Sector Capital Partners and published in the Community Development Investment Review of the San Francisco Federal Reserve:

“Fit with Issue-Area Priorities-As the bonds unite private investors or philanthropists with government entities, alignment with issue areas is critical. Sectors such as education and workforce development are two areas in which local and federal governments have a vested interest in both increasing social outcomes and the efficiency of public funds spent. Strong government benefits will help attract public sector partners.”

Proving success in workforce development requires significant, and intrusive, levels of data collection and the ability to track students beyond high school. I can’t help but think the push to create longitudinal data systems and federal clearinghouses like the one discussed in hearings held by the Commission on Evidence-Based Policy Making could well be paving the way for widespread adoption of PFS models a few years down the road. Jeffrey Liebman serves on the Commission, and his profile from their website indicates more than a passing interest in PFS, “Since 2011, his Harvard Kennedy School Government Performance Lab (GPL) has been providing pro bono technical assistance to state and local governments interested in implementing pay for success contracts using social impact bonds.” While the repayment structure of several early childhood SIB deals are linked to data collection that takes place at kindergarten enrollment, the “Parent Child Center” SIB program in Chicago provides an additional payout if children meet specified levels of literacy attainment based on test scores in third grade. It’s clear that PFS-related data collection will not stop at the schoolhouse door.

The John and Laura Arnold Foundation has worked steadily to advance Pay for Success. A 2015 article from Inside Philanthropy notes, “The Arnolds and Bloomberg Philanthropies both recently received props from the Obama administration for being “essential partners” in government’s quest to surface the tools, programs and approaches that will help the country adapt to a changing educational and economic landscape.” Both are high-profile figures in the movement to privatize public education, and the Arnolds have also been at the forefront of pension “reform” efforts. Since 2013, the foundation has poured tens of millions of dollars into an “Evidence Based Policy and Innovation” initiative. In 2015, the Coalition for Evidence Based Policy wound down its operations after 14 years and merged with the Arnold Foundation. Among the coalition’s accomplishments were successfully lobbying for the creation of the Social Spending Innovation Research program in K12 education as well as Paul Ryan and Patty Murray’s Commission on Evidence Based Policy Making.

Below is a relationship map of select John and Laura Arnold Foundation grants showing strategic investments that have been made in various arenas to enable widespread adoption of Pay for Success and Social Impact Finance at a national scale. These include investments in funders, think tanks, lobbyists, data brokers, evaluators, as well as reform groups like KIPP and Teach for America suited to working within the constraints of data-driven educational environments. I plan to create maps for other Pay for Success players in following posts, so that we can better understand the financial networks operating behind the scenes to advance SIB implementation and school redesign efforts linked to these initiatives. To access the interactive map click here.


The tests are coming, and the data will be extracted from all but those who refuse to participate. So by all means continue to opt out! The reason for it has nothing to do with education. It’s about power and control. We are experiencing a hostile takeover of one of our most precious resources, our schools. If we cannot turn the tide, the idea of public school as a physical space in a community where students gather to learn face-to-face with a human teacher, certified and professionally trained, could disappear. And once our public assets are liquidated and teachers cast aside, the learning ecosystem model could very well be built on that wreckage using Pay for Success. I imagine a day in the not too distant future where online education companies or community partners compete for payouts based on the performance of students whose data is extracted on a minute-by-minute basis, not just during an end of year test. Public education would be transformed into a human capital pipeline to be mined for profit. Educational surveillance would become normalized with the Personally Identifiable Information of everyone interacting with these systems tracked in real time. The evidence-based policies advocated for by folks like John and Laura Arnold are not ones that value humans as individuals. Their world view is one where education is a series of generic programs to be scaled, controlled and managed for profit. Keep this in mind when you see those testing dates coming up on the school calendar. This is all happening for a reason, even though for the uninitiated none of it makes sense.

Future Ready Schools: How Silicon Valley and the Defense Department Plan to Remake Public Education: A talk by Alison McDowell

Do you live in the Seattle area or have friends who do? I’ll be presenting there on March 25th.

Seattle Education


Future Ready Schools:

How Silicon Valley and the Defense Department Plan to Remake Public Education

March 25th, from 10:30 AM-Noon

Lake City Branch of the Seattle Public Library

12501 28th Ave. N.E., Seattle, WA 98125

This talk is free and open to the public.

Since the passage of No Child Left Behind, schools across the country have been destabilized by ongoing austerity budgets and punitive data-driven policies. Meanwhile, an alternative infrastructure of digital education has been quietly developed and refined through public-private partnerships set up between the Defense Department’s Advanced Distributed Learning Initiative, technology companies, and higher education interests.

The Obama administration made a big push for 21st Century School redesign where teachers would be turned into “guides on the side” with children spending more and more time on adaptive learning management systems. Now we face a future in which education policy is being handled at the state level, where…

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Decaying Buildings and the Rise of Digital Education


“DeVos doesn’t think we should be funding school buildings as much as students.” The line caught my eye as I scrolled through social media this weekend. How could it not? I’ve been working hard over the past year to try and convince other education activists that the true endgame of the reform movement is to make school buildings obsolete. So I listened to the video of DeVos speaking to attendees of the Magnet Schools of America National Policy Training Conference in Washington, and there it was at timestamp 11:40: “I don’t think we should be as focused necessarily on funding school buildings, as much as we should be having a conversation around funding students.”

DeVos, being from Michigan, surely knows the deplorable conditions students in Detroit face daily trying to access a free and appropriate public education. And Detroit is not alone. Parsons completed a Facility Condition Assessment for the School District of Philadelphia last month identifying $4.5 billion in deferred maintenance. Over $1 billion of that total involves life safety, code compliance, health hazards, accessibility, and security issues. Think about that. We are asking vulnerable children and school staff to enter buildings that are not safe five days a week, while at the same time the Secretary of the US Department of Education is proclaiming we should not be funding school buildings.

This week I also came across a legislative forecast for Educational Savings Accounts (vouchers) prepared by Jeb Bush’s group Excellence in Education. The info-graphic accompanying the report indicated that my home state of Pennsylvania was one of 13 states identified as having a 75+% chance of implementing ESA legislation in the coming year. Our schools are already in an incredibly precarious financial position after years of austerity budgets and onerous debt service. The combination of intentionally unsafe buildings and ESAs will likely end up pushing more families out of the public school system with devastating consequences for those who remain.

Following on the “don’t invest in buildings” comment was another doozy from Jonathan Swan’s conversation with DeVos featured in Axios “I expect there will be more public charter schools. I expect there will be more private schools. I expect there will be more virtual schools. I expect there will be more schools of any kind that haven’t even been invented yet.” And while some chuckle over that last line, I’m pretty sure she’s talking about “Learning Ecosystems” which exist in concept right now, if not execution. The decentralized cyber-based education model with community drop-in centers would be consistent with her support of market-driven choice and tech-based educational content delivery, as well as her disdain for neighborhood schools being anchors in their communities. In a 2013 interview with Philanthropy Roundtable DeVos noted, “One long-term trend that’s working in our favor is technology. It seems to me that, in the Internet age, the tendency to equate “education” with “specific school buildings” is going to be greatly diminished.”

As new state ESSA plans roll out, we’re going to be hearing a lot more about personalized learning – learning that can take place any time, anywhere, at any pace. Even now, Knowledgeworks, a major promoter of the learning ecosystem model, is tracking personalized learning provisions emerging in state plans on an interactive map. Personalized learning is consistent with competency or proficiency-based education, and DeVos’s home state of Michigan has implemented many CBE policies. Acceptance of competency-based education and virtual schooling is key to the implementation of learning ecosystems. It will be impossible for reformers to fully separate education from buildings and teachers until they eliminate “seat time” requirements where students must go to a physical school building for a set number of hours or days per year. The report “Competency Based Education: An Overview for Michigan’s Superintendents” goes into considerable detail on this. At the same time reformers are working to get credit flexibility legislation passed, as they did in Ohio, that will allow credit for “non-traditional” learning experiences that take place online or “out-of-school time.” Ironically, it is the Carnegie Foundation itself that is working very hard to eliminate the “factory model” Carnegie Unit.

In 2013, the National Governor’s Association funded a study on credit flexibility for the Governor of Pennsylvania under the innocuous sounding title “Awarding Credit to Support Student Learning.” Much of the 32-page report is used to pitch competency-based education as well as cyber schools, which isn’t so surprising since NGA is behind Common Core State Standards and CBE. While the Central Susquehanna Intermediate Unit compiled the report, special thanks were given to Chris Sturgis, a consultant affiliated with Competencyworks. Competencyworks is a collaborative initiative of Ed Reform 2.0 interests. Their advisory board includes representatives of iNACOL, the Florida Virtual School, Council of Chief State School Officers, NGA, Knowledgeworks, Great Schools Partnership, Center for Collaborative Education, Nellie Mae Foundation, and Jobs for the Future.

It is important to note the role Central Susquehanna Intermediate Unit played in shepherding along this report, because the truth is we should all be paying much closer attention to Pennsylvania’s Intermediate Units, and their equivalents in other states. See my related piece on Mass Customized Learning and Appalachian Intermediate Unit 8. The system of 29 Intermediate Units was set up in 1971. Each school district is assigned to an IU that provides services like curriculum development, professional development, educational planning services, and serving as a liaison to state and federal agencies. However the “about us” page of the Pennsylvania Association of Intermediate Units website describes IUs as “entrepreneurial, highly skilled, technology-rich, and agile providers of cost-effective, instructional, and operational services to school districts, charter schools, and over 2,400 non-public and private schools. Additionally, intermediate units are direct providers of quality instruction to over 50,000 Pennsylvania students.”

So they are positioning themselves as technology-rich, cost-effective providers of instruction, are they? That sounds a lot like virtual schooling. And, in fact IUs across the state are busily setting up a shadow network of public cyber schools ostensibly to compete with cyber charter schools. Over the past decade public (non-charter) virtual schools have been set up and expanded nationwide, including: Florida Virtual School, Illinois Virtual SchoolNorth Carolina Virtual Public School and many others. In fact there’s a Virtual School Leadership Alliance that retains the consulting firm, Evergreen Education Group, to promote their interests. Some virtual schools cater to students who take ALL of their courses online, but most are also set up to accept students enrolling in a few courses per year.

The Capital Area Intermediate Unit, set up CAOLA, the Capital Area Online Learning Association in 2009. Today the association has 37 members, including 10 of the state’s 29 IUs. Course offerings are aligned with standards set by the International Association of K12 Online Learning (iNACOL) and cover hundreds of core courses and electives provided by vendors like Edison Learning, Apex Learning, Accelerate Education, Presence Learning, and Smarter Measure.

The Capital Area Intermediate Unit is cozy with iNACOL and in 2016 joined with them to co-sponsor the Mid-Atlantic Conference on Personalized Learning held in Baltimore, MD. iNACOL is a non-profit education reform advocacy group founded in 2003 to support growth of the virtual school movement. Supporters include the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Nellie Mae Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation, all major players in the movement to privatize public education. As you can see below iNACOL’s board composition reflects the various elements of the Ed Reform 2.0 agenda:

PA Intermediate Unit 13, also known as the Lancaster Lebanon Virtual Solutions Program, is a member of CAOLA. On January 31, 2017 they hosted Pennsylvania House Democratic Policy Committee for a roundtable discussion on hybrid online learning. State Representative Mike Sturla, D-Lancaster, facilitated the discussion, and among the day’s presenters were Ken Zimmerman and Collette Cairns, both of whom are employed by IU13 and have ties to iNACOL (the International Association for K12 Online Learning).

One of the lines politicians are using to try and sell the public on in-house (IU run) virtual schools is that it’s a great way for children to have more course options. The pitch usually focuses on access to elective courses that might otherwise be unavailable to students, courses like Chinese or Latin, but in reality, most virtual school offerings are core courses. For example, the Montgomery Virtual Program serves an affluent suburban county with the highest level of education funding in the state. The program offers over 100 courses in K-5 education through Connections Learning, which is owned by Pearson. With the exception of one or two offerings ALL of these classes should be available to students in a neighborhood school as part of a well-rounded curriculum. This is not about providing more choices. It’s about outsourcing education to online vendors like Edgenuity or FuelEd for financial reasons.

Let’s be clear, virtual programs, even if done under the auspices of “public” entities, will siphon students and funds away from neighborhood schools. These “public” online courses will be pitched as “better” than cyber charters, because some courses might employ local teachers – see the Open Campus PA program based in Lancaster. They will be pitched as a prudent cost-savings measure. They will be pitched as more transparent than corrupt cyber charters. They will be pitched as collaborative, “it takes a village,” a chance for districts to work together to share teaching resources. But we must recognize that IF we choose to participate in such ventures, we are ensuring that scarcity will remain a permanent feature of the educational landscape.

It will be a number of years before learning ecosystems are ready for primetime. While the various elements are being refined (ESAs, Blockchain/Bitcoin payment systems, skills badging programs, out of school time partnerships, universal broadband, and SIB/Pay for Success legislation), reformers are going to need to condition people to accept digital education as the new normal. Hybrid-Blended Learning will be a key tool during the Ed Reform 2.0 phase. People are still too invested in neighborhood schools to willingly buy into the ecosystem model where schools mostly disappear, replaced by a few community drop-in centers. Hybrid-Blended learning is designed to aid this transition, to gradually reframe people’s expectations about what public education is meant to be.

In 2016, The Center for Digital Education with financial support from Microsoft, Edgenuity, Insight, and Smart prepared a report called “Making Blended Work: School District Chief Academic Officers Sound off on Best Practices for Blended Learning.” Officials from 16 school districts, including Cheryl Logan of the School District of Philadelphia, provided input. It should be noted that our district had been looking into Blended Learning as early as May 2013 when it was the topic of a special Strategy, Policies, and Priority Meeting. Two years later in May 2015, the School Reform Commission of Philadelphia approved Resolution A-22 authorizing expenditures of up to $10 million on blended learning programs for the district between 2015 and 2018.

The quote below is taken from page 13 of the “Making Blended Work” report.

“Starting in 2014, the district (Cabarrus County Schools) identified its best high school and middle school teachers, doubled the amount of students those educators teach, cut the in-person time with these students in half and paid the teachers more to reach more kids and get the same results.”

Does any thoughtful parent or teacher really believe you can DOUBLE the amount of children being taught and reduce in-person instruction BY HALF and get the same results? Well, perhaps if you are only measuring data points, but that denies all the learning that takes place in relationship to one another. How can we knowingly sit by and allow this so called “personalized” blended learning model to usurp face-to-face instruction and the right to learn in a class of ones peers?

None of this is happening by chance. It is part of a much larger program to shift control of public education away from communities to financiers and technocrats. It’s very much linked to impact investing. Adopting online courses as a “temporary fix” to deal with austerity budgets is ill advised. Newsflash: IT WON’T BE TEMPORARY. Accepting stripped-down computerized services today will only normalize austerity and ultimately make access to a full-time human teacher seem like an unaffordable luxury. Once in place, funding for reduced class size, more human teachers, and a well-rounded offline curriculum will never be restored. We need to check the power of the Intermediate Units (or their equivalent in other states), organizations that are NOT accountable to local school districts, and we all need to take a deep breath before adopting any form of digital instruction that reduces the amount of time children have with human teachers. Meanwhile, my child’s school really needs a new roof.